It may have been with us since 1979 but time has never stood still for the Astra – now in its 7th generation. But Vauxhalls answer to perpetual motion has now come of age thanks to an incredible ground up new design that’s more revolution than evolution.
Also ran to front runner at last?
In a funny sort of way you have to feel a bit sorry for Vauxhall, they’ve never really commanded respect since those halcyon Cavalier days have they? Once, they held sales records that would today seem amazing and travel back a little further and everything they sold from Chevette through to Carlton were the darling of the fleet manager and almost as popular in retail sales. Astra, despite pipping the Escort to FWD supremacy by a whole year way back in`79 has always played second or even third fiddle to Ford and Volkswagen… until now maybe?
The Astra Mk1 and Mk2 GTE models were cars of legend. Even at the recent launch event at Vauxhalls remaining car assembly plant in Ellesmere Port, the sight of their heritage GTE models had all of us bloggers and journo’s billing and cooing. I must confess that I snuck a sneaky drive around the local town in their MK2 GTE 16v which was specially arranged by GM’s UK communications director. But since those high performance days helped by Vauxhalls huge success in motorsport, the Astra became an also ran as rivals raised the bar in terms of vehicle standards.
The generation 5 and 6 cars sold reasonably well and the GTC model that first started life as a concept still looks pretty. The main Astra problem was that despite each new model being a hardy all rounder of a car, they sold purely on cost and mainly seemed to end up as fleet fodder or rental run-arounds. But things have changed for the Astra and rather like Steve Austin this latest one is stronger & faster – they have the technology.. but can they rebuild the image?
First things first, this is no re-skin or facelift. Of course some of the power units are updated existing designs but every panel is totally new. The interior is all new in design too and by clever engineering that includes a new method of welding, new sheet steel material by working in partnership with TATA Steel and a compete re-design of key suspension components some 200kg has been shaved off the car. That’s some saving by any standards but its also aided by the fact this new car is slightly smaller than the old one.
Cleverly, Vauxhall seem to have produced something of a Tardis by offering more boot and passenger space than before. Also worthy of note is the greatly improved rear headroom. But the rising waistline and narrowing glass area does hamper rearward visibility – not helped by the lack of parking sensors or reverse camera in this SRi trim. Front and rear comfort even on very long journeys is very good though rear seat passengers could do with a centre arm rest – oddly another expected item that’s not in the specification.
At the rear there is a deep and wide boot than expands from 370 to 1210 litres. Neither figure is class leading and certainly falls way behind the Civic but its ample none the less. Vauxhall have missed a vital practicality point by not having a flat floor once the seats are folded, there is a noticeable step that would make long objects rather awkward to slide in. For a car aimed at fleet and family this is a bit of a clanger dropped I feel but one that could easily be rectified in the future perhaps?
I quite like the styling even though with blurred vision it could be mistaken for a Hyundai but as you get closer the guppy like grille similar to the new Corsa is definitely Vauxhall. There’s impressive shut lines, a flawless paint finish and the doors and tailgate close with a reassuring thunk. It all adds to a subconscious feeling of quality despite the weight saving keep fit regime this all new model has gone through. I’m convinced that should you leap out of a Golf and into an Astra you’ll be rather pleasantly surprised with the tangible first contact feelings of the door handles, knobs and switches – its not bad.
A right first time driving position is aided by a pump action seat height adjuster and plenty of reach / rake of the leather clad steering wheel. The column stalks work with a well damped feeling and there’s no rough moulding edges to them – something that cant always be said of the Korean rivals. The instruments are small compared to some but the font is clear, the illumination is soft on the eye at night and they can be read with that all important quick glance. Pedal spacing is also inch perfect and you’ll find a good amount of space alongside the clutch pedal – perfect for those long motorway trawls.
I covered not far short of 1000 miles in a week and found very little to complain about in terms of its comfort, refinement and ability to get on with the job. General refinement is equally impressive though I noticed a bit of vibration right at the bottom end of the rev range – more noticeable when pulling away from a standing start. Once on the move and especially during a motorway cruise the aptly titled “whisper diesel” seems to live up to its name – the new Astra is a sheer delight to rack off the high speed miles. It proved economical considering most of the time the aircon was used thanks to the damp cold weather – well over 60mpg was averaged.
With 136Ps on tap it performs fine too. The power band is wide and it has plenty of slogging power low to mid range though you may need to change from top to 5th on a bank for a swift overtake manoeuvre if the revs are below 1700rpm. Thanks to a new lightweight rear suspension that’s no longer shared with the Zafira, Astra feels light on its feet, has a really quick steering turn in and utterly safe road manners only blighted by a distinct lack of steering feel that doesn’t exactly bode well with the “SRi” badge. Ride comfort is biased towards firm but is never overbearingly harsh. I found the gearshift light and easy but cannot understand the need for such a huge clumsy gearknob.
Another odd thing was the rather snatchy brakes. It reminded me of a Citroen BX… meaning that nothing happens at first then there’s a notable surge of braking power – though you soon get acclimatised. Its not going to be a problem if its going to be your everyday only car, but if you jump in and out different marques this could well be something of an annoyance. Gripes aside, the new Astra is leaps and bounds ahead of the old car in terms of outright driver appeal and user friendliness. Technology plays a huge trump card and I reckon its the Astra’s most impressive attribute.
The 8″ screen for the audio / sat nav unit features “IntelliLink” which turns the car into a mobile 4G hotspot for up to seven different devices via an on board SIM card. From convenience we go to safety with the standard fitment of “OnStar” which is in effect a 365 / 24/7 customer help connection to a UK based call centre trained to assist in almost any motoring eventuality or need. One push of a button connects you to the Luton based control centre. Want to know the nearest restaurant to your current location or a dealer or even a florist? The advisor will find it and send the co-ordinates straight to the sat nav – no faffing around for a pen!
The OnStar advisor is even there for a chat if you are lonely or tired – its all part of the service. I tried this out and had a nice five minute chat with a chap called Jazz – it really works. But there’s a serious side to OnStar and one that is a potential life saver. Should you have an accident and the airbags be deployed, OnStar will automatically kick in and an advisor will ask you of your personal well being. If you fail to acknowledge or respond then the advisor will contact the emergency services and pass on your location via the GPS link. For the record, the driver can switch off the live GPS link at anytime but in the event of an accident or collision OnStar automatically kicks in. OnStar also has the ability to diagnose running faults… even before the driver has noticed a problem – clever eh?
Big Brother doesn’t have to be watching all the time if you don’t want him to and all this comes totally free for the first year. After that it costs £76 annually – with unlimited data streaming too. An incredible standard feature that could have saved the life of the tragic couple who went undetected trapped in their vehicle after a crash in Scotland not that long ago of which I’m sure many of us remember. Also on a safety and convenience note are the impressive Intellilux LED matrix headlights. Different pools of light shine when on high beam to give a totally adaptive full beam without blinding oncoming traffic. It sounded like a gimmick but it certainly works and is unique in this class of car.
I came away from the Astra feeling deeply impressed with its mix of technology, user friendliness, performance, economy and comfort. Some features such as OnStar and the clever headlamps are genuine firsts in its class and as mentioned before, some Astra aspects have truly life saving qualities. This Brit built Astra has gone from journeyman to contender in one fell swoop, it deserves to do well… really well.
AUTOBRITANNIA.NET RATING: 9/10
THE HUMBLE OPINION
What can I say? Not for a while has Vauxhall had such a significantly talented car on its books. It drives great, performs well, its comfy, refined and bristles with marvellous technology – best of all, its tech that simply works out of the box… and works well.
Now there is a genuine alternative to major key rivals, ideal for potential customers who would like a credible antidote to Focus or Golf. To cap it all off its built right here in Britain too and features standard kit never seen before on a mainstream volume family car.
Could do with some sharpening in the boot practicality stakes and you can sense the cost cutting by the lack of a glovebox lamp, the clumsy rear folding seat that lacks a centre passenger arm rest and the inferior quality of the coin tray beside the steering wheel. Just a little nip and tweak here and there will turn this car into class winner!
Its cheaper than the old car not to mention more frugal and fun to drive as well. DON’T dismiss it purely on the grounds of it not being a Ford or a Volkswagen… if you do… you are missing out.
But are the dealers advanced enough to sell such an advanced car I wonder. Some key dealers belong to group chains whose reputations can sometimes be shocking… this is like no other Vauxhall that’s come before, its got game changing potential NOT just a cost led purchase – despite this new model being cheaper than the old one.
A slick car requires a slick and professional dealer network, and that’s my only main concern!
Should you buy? Experience the technology and then decide!
Model Tested: Vauxhall Astra SRi NAV 1.6 CDTi
Produced By: Vauxhall Motors Ellesmere Port UK
Price: £21,480 excluding options
Engine: 1.6 16v Euro6 Turbo Diesel
Power: 136Ps with 320Nm of torque
Performance: 0 – 60 in 9 seconds 127mph max*
Economy: 72.4mpg combined* (64mpg on test)
C02 / VED: 103G/Km Band B
* Manufacturers or Govt claimed data
THE HIGHS: The best Astra ever and the best Vauxhall in years – Impressive and potentially life saving technology – Lovely to drive – Generally very refined – Economical – Comfy and secure – Grippy chassis – Clever LED headlamp option – Good exterior fit and finish – Roomy cabin – UK built – Superb motorway muncher – Android & Apple iPlay make music streaming a doddle.
THE LOWS: Don’t let the SRi moniker fool you – Some cheap feeling incidental plastics – Over large gear lever knob – Sensitive brakes – Steering lacks real feel – Rear practicality let down by a non flat load space floor – Some obvious specification cost cutting – Brand image may struggle to win over the hearts & minds of key rival owners.
For more information on the new Astra CLICK HERE